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Monday, January 05, 2009

Homo Economicus (not that there's anything wrong with that!)

My good friend Eve Harrow was kind enough to forward an excellent article to me that is a must read for anyone who is interested in a (notice I didn't say 'the') sociological explanation for the prevailing disconnect between western and Muslim societies. 

Here's an excerpt to whet your appetite:

"A decade and a half ago, in his most famous book 'The Clash Of Civilizations', Professor [Samuel] Huntington argued that western elites’ view of man as homo economicus was reductive and misleading — that cultural identity is a more profound behavioral indicator than lazy assumptions about the universal appeal of western-style economic liberty and the benefits it brings.

Very few of us want to believe this.

“The great majority of Palestinian people,” Condi Rice, the Secretary of State, said to Cal Thomas a couple of years back, “they just want a better life. This is an educated population. I mean, they have a kind of culture of education and a culture of civil society. I just don’t believe mothers want their children to grow up to be suicide bombers. I think the mothers want their children to grow up to go to university. And if you can create the right conditions, that’s what people are going to do.”

Cal Thomas asked a sharp follow-up: “Do you think this or do you know this?”

“Well, I think I know it,” said Secretary Rice.

“You think you know it?”

“I think I know it.”

I think she knows she doesn’t know it. But in the modern world there is no diplomatic vocabulary for the kind of cultural fault line represented by the Israeli/Palestinian dispute, so even a smart thinker like Dr. Rice can only frame it as an issue of economic and educational opportunity.

Of course, there are plenty of Palestinians like the ones the Secretary of State describes: you meet them living as doctors and lawyers in Los Angeles and Montreal and Geneva … but not, on the whole, in Gaza. In Gaza, they don’t vote for Hamas because they want access to university education. Or, if they do, it’s to get Junior into the Saudi-funded Hamas-run Islamic University of Gaza, where majoring in rocket science involves making one and firing it at the Zionist Entity. In 2007, as part of their attempt to recover Gaza from Hamas, Fatah seized 1,000 Qassam rockets at the university, as well as seven Iranian military trainers."

Go read the whole thing and broaden your horizons. 

Is there a good possibility this guy is completely wrong.  Of course... we're talking about sociology.  This discipline doesn't have calibrated instruments that can prove or disprove the truth/accuracy of any given theory.   But this particular explanation for the cultural disconnect between 'us' and 'them' rings true to me. 

I'd be interested to know how others feel after reading the piece.

Posted by David Bogner on January 5, 2009 | Permalink


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I don't think he's wrong, in fact I think he puts his finger on it very well, or rather, we put our fingers in our ears and choose not to listen, which may ultimately may cost all of us dear, Israel first.

Posted by: Ken | Jan 5, 2009 11:11:17 AM

you know, this whole 'they voted hamas, they are all hamas' thing bugs me. i wouldnt like people to think that of me and my elected govt officials.

Posted by: fred | Jan 5, 2009 1:34:45 PM

Ken... YEs, that last point is lost on many of the foreign voices. They are writing checks with their influence that Israel will ultimately have to cash when an unsatisfactory cease-fire is imposed upon us.

Fred... I suggest you go read this article for a better understanding of this concept than I could ever muster.

Posted by: David Bogner | Jan 5, 2009 2:03:48 PM

Steyn is right on. Can one "prove" that these militants hate their children? I guess we'll never know for sure.

But it's like a hearing a scream, hearing a shot, smelling smoke and seeing a corpse with bullet holes that match the gun's caliber. It's called circumstantial evidence, and is not 100% accurate, but something is fishy when the same scenario repeats itself.

And the evidence here is abundant: ignoring the olive branch repeatedly; TV programs and school plays and portraits that glorify violence and the martyr's afterlife; obnoxious statements, etc. I'd say you have a pretty good case.

We can't say that these people are truly different than you or me -- there are some success stories -- but their cultural and political milieau handicaps them. And that makes them different than you or me -- in this time, in this place.

To paraphrase: "I'm going to show you how oppressed we are, and how just our cause is, even if it kills us."

Posted by: Ari | Jan 5, 2009 3:34:39 PM

What you are saying is: there are a lot of ways of being human, and when I read that a top Hamas terrorist was killed with his four wives and nine OF his children I get the feeling that they ain't like us. But David, I also feel that way about extremist Jews.

Posted by: jsilverheels | Jan 5, 2009 5:46:00 PM

Ari...Well put.

jsilverheels... Wow! You managed to point out that a terrorists family was killed with him (a result that is regrettable, but not entirely surprising given his occupation), and those pesky extremist Jews. Nicely done. The cadence and framing of your comment suggests you were trying to bring examples from both sides of the conflict (i.e. even-handedness) but upon closer inspection you are condemning Israel and Jews. Did I miss anything?

Posted by: David Bogner | Jan 5, 2009 6:16:44 PM

jsilverheels...just to illustrate the point further, did you know that the terrorist's four wives were widows of suicide/homicide bombers he trained and sent out?

I never heard of an extremist Jew who murdered and coveted in the same act, at least not in this context.

No, they ain't like us at all!

Posted by: Ken | Jan 5, 2009 7:40:47 PM

"She THINKS she knows?"

I have pointed out more than once on this site how incredibly overmatched (and I'm being kind here) Condi Rice is at her job as Secretary of State. And here we have it again. Would Henry Kissinger have "thought he knew" something? How about Madelyn Albright? Al Haig? Don't think so. Yet here she is, trying to frame U.S. policy about a valued ally fighting for its life based on something "she thinks she knows!"

I won't miss that woman one bit.

Posted by: psachya | Jan 5, 2009 8:26:50 PM

Glad to see you pointing people to Mark Steyn. He's the best and most common-sense conservative writer out there. I've been a fan for years.

Fred, to what "extremist" Jews are you referring? Extremist Jews, like Moderate Muslims, seem to be a nameless, fictional group of people used to fill one side of the scales of moral equivalence. "Both sides" is a convenient and lazy method of avoiding the imperative to take a moral stand (and to take the risk of having to defend it.)

Posted by: Evan | Jan 5, 2009 10:17:40 PM

Shira Salamone had a good post today (http://onthefringe_jewishblog.blogspot.com/2009/01/for-spite-re-palestinians-preference.html#links) about the futility in bridging the gap between two cultures with vastly different moral compasses.

She says that the Geneva Convention is tough to apply to an entity with suicide bombers as an modus operandi. When an enemy doesn't care about its own soldiers (or the people they are supposed to be, er, advocates for), then there is no chance that they will honor any commitment to fight or treat prisoners fairly.

I'd like to see any other country, let alone Philistines, notify the residents of an apartment building about an imminent bombing.

Posted by: Ari | Jan 5, 2009 11:33:55 PM

I see Huntington's & Steyn's points, but I think it's a bit wider than simple cultural differences. I can see that a person's circumstances can sway them towards radicalism, hatred, violence, etc and that there are basic cultural differences... but a well-educated, well-off radical is still a radical (or terrorist, militant, vigilante, etc). It's not only circumstances and culture that cause people to strap on explosives and blow-up themselves and others; it's also driven by ideology, which can cut across all sorts of cultural lines.

Ideology was an important force that drove Nazi Germany and the Rwandan genocide - and if I would have paid more attention in history classes maybe I could point to a few other examples. Israel has to deal with a lot of anti-Israel and/or anti-Jewish ideologies that aren't really new and, in my opinion, aren't really driven by circumstances or culture either. So changing the circumstances or acknowledging the culture will only get you so far; sooner or later you have to confront the ideology.

Of course, I could be all wrong(!) Stay safe...

Posted by: Steve Bogner | Jan 6, 2009 12:35:58 AM

ari, thanx 4 mentioning my post. i want 2 b sure 2 point out that part of the main point of my post was actually copied from a comment by jordan hirsch 2 a post on trep's blog

pls pardon poor typing--2 broken wrists

Posted by: Shira Salamone | Jan 6, 2009 5:46:32 AM

ari, thanx 4 mentioning my post. i want 2 b sure 2 point out that part of the main point of my post was actually copied from a comment by jordan hirsch 2 a post on trep's blog

pls pardon poor typing--2 broken wrists

Posted by: Shira Salamone | Jan 6, 2009 7:31:30 AM

>I never heard of an extremist Jew who murdered and coveted in the same act, at least >not in this context.

King David and his pursuit of Batsheva does come to mind...and a few other wives that he acquired under dubious circumstances.

There's plenty of evidence that a highly controlled and ideologically driven community produces crazy and extreme behavior that appears to go against basic principles of survival. Nazi Germany always comes to mind, also Cambodia, North Korea, China in the twentieth century, especially the Cultural Revolution, the Crusades, Salem during the Witch Trials, Spain during the entire freaking Renaissance...and that's before we get to recent African history.

Some communities manage to recover, if their material circumstances change, or if their ideological focus is removed.

I don't know where that leaves us.

Posted by: balabusta in bluejeans | Jan 6, 2009 8:58:14 AM

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